Education

How to get on the CIO career track

Making the move into executive IT management first requires some serious evaluation of the pros and cons of such a move. As career expert Molly Joss explains, the second step to move up to the CIO level is choosing the right type of employer.

Question: What should my first step toward the "C" level be?
I am a programmer with years of experience—unfortunately, for lots of different companies. I’ve worked for companies that let me go when the project was over and companies that went bankrupt while I was employed. The development company I work for now is showing signs of cash flow difficulties, such as cutting back on perks and laying off lots of people.

I have always been able to find programming work, so I am not worried about finding another job like this one. But I want to shift gears and work on getting a job that leads to becoming a CIO. Should I try to find a job at another services-type company or should I try for an end-user environment? Which would get me closer to my goal?

Answer: Evaluate pros and cons, then look for an end-user company
It sounds as though you want to find a job in IT that offers more long-term stability than programming. Unfortunately, even the best programmers find themselves shifting from job to job these days, just to keep paying the bills. That’s because many companies that create software on a fee basis have one major overhead item—people. When companies like this need to reduce costs, they head for the biggest items on the expense list and that’s payroll.

I’m telling you what you already know from your own experience because I want to confirm your suspicions that other types of IT jobs can be more stable. I say “can be” because payroll is one of the biggest items on any company’s list of expenses. Thus, it’s tempting for any company to cut back on staff when cash flow crunches come along.

Being the CIO, or on the CIO track, can give you more stability in your career, however. You would be able to manage projects that spans months or years and that overlap time-wise. Thus, you’d always have projects that are in progress. If you like working on one project at a time without starting another until the current one is finished, then being a CIO isn’t a good career change for you.

Make sure the change is a good one for you
Before you make up your mind that you want to be a CIO, you should thoughtfully ponder the switch to the management side of IT.

You wouldn’t be working with code anymore—you’d be working with people. That’s not always an easy, or successful, switch. Recently I talked with Joe Santana, co-author of book called Manage I.T., about how techies can successfully make the switch.

Joe said he wrote the book because he found in his consulting work that companies would often promote really good technical people into management roles, only to find that the employees didn’t perform well in the new role.

The book helps its readers make a complete personal assessment to see if they would like to do the work of management. You would find the book valuable reading because even though your company isn’t offering you a management role, you want to get one.

Focus on the end-user community
Now to your specific question about what kind of company you should work for next, given your goal of becoming a CIO. In my mind, there is no question that you should find work in the IT department of a corporation whose main product is not computer software. In other words, it’s time to go to work for the end-user community.

Since you haven’t worked for an end-user company before, you have the opportunity to choose an industry or two for your next move. To maximize your chances of getting in, it should be an industry that needs a lot of computing power and that relies heavily on whatever the latest and greatest is. Any vertical market segment that is holding its own in this economy is a good choice.

Pay some management dues
With your industry choices in mind, your next move is to get some project management experience under your belt. You may be able to start managing projects where you are now. Because the company has laid off some of the IT staff, there may be opportunities. You may have to do some extra work to get the management done while you’re getting the programming done, but the extra effort will be worth it. You may also find that by taking on these extra responsibilities, you are able to hold on to your job longer.

You will also want to start looking around for companies in your area that offer the kinds of jobs that help you take that next step. You want to find jobs that let you manage other people doing IT-related work. The exact title isn’t as important as what you do.

Find companies in your area that fit in the industry segments you’ve chosen and find out what kinds of IT projects they have under way. You find out by reading local papers, talking to other IT people in the area, and poring over the company’s Web site. You could also be so bold as to try to get in touch with the company’s IT director or CIO to ask if they need some project management help.

You’re going to have to push yourself to get your career going in this new direction. After all, you are comfortably employed and could get the same kind of work again if you get laid off in the near future. In the long run, though, you will be glad you made the switch.
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